Abortion – deliberately ending a pregnancy – was almost always illegal and often difficult to obtain until the 1970s. The churches condemned it, most doctors disapproved, and women who had abortions did not publicly admit it.
But in practice many people were not opposed. Contraceptive methods were limited and ineffective in the 19th century, and remained unreliable and difficult to get during much of the 20th century. Pills that promised to ‘restore regularity’ were easily available for women to take if their period was late (though they may not have been very effective). Men having affairs sometimes paid for their lover to have an abortion. Couples decided that they could not cope with another baby, and the woman went to a local abortionist. When abortionists were prosecuted, juries often found them not guilty.
Writer and journalist Robin Hyde became pregnant to a married man in 1930. When he suggested she pay half the cost of an abortion, Hyde thought, ‘You can’t say we haven’t got sex equality all right’.1 She had the baby in secret, not telling her family. Her son grew up in a foster home.
English law, applied in the country from 1840, outlawed abortion. Once New Zealand was self-governing, Parliament passed legislation in 1867 making it an offence to use any means to cause miscarriage.
There was a very limited right to abortion when a woman’s life was in danger. In the late 1930s this right was extended by a court judgment. It became legal for a doctor to perform an abortion when a woman’s life or mental health was endangered by continuation of a pregnancy. But abortion was still strongly disapproved of, and many doctors refused to perform the operation.
Legal responsibility for abortion depended on the circumstances. If a pregnant woman went to an abortionist, she was an accomplice to the crime, and the abortionist was the criminal. A woman trying to induce her own abortion was the criminal.
Frances Quinn, untrained and incompetent, performed abortions. In 1922 two young women, both pregnant to married men, sought her help. Mona Hamon barely survived. Quinn’s first three attempts to provoke miscarriage by inserting an instrument failed, and her fourth effort, in a roadside ditch, caused blood poisoning and uncontrolled bleeding. Hamon spent six weeks in hospital recovering. Eileen O’Donoghue died. After her abortion she struggled home to Napier from Gisborne, telling a taxi driver that she’d had a ‘very rough spin’. She died in hospital soon after, suffering from acute septic peritonitis.
Because of its illegality, the number of abortions being performed before the 1970s can only be estimated. At the time, estimates were based on numbers of women who were hospitalised after a botched abortion.
From 1927 the Department of Health required hospitals to report the number of women admitted due to septic abortions. In the mid-1930s a department official estimated 10,000 abortions took place each year (compared with around 28,000 live births). Septic abortions were estimated to cause a quarter of New Zealand’s maternal deaths.
The number of women who died as a result of home or back-street abortions is not known – doctors would sometimes give a different reason on death certificates to save a family shame. The number of those who died in hospital as a result of botched abortions leapt from 14 in 1927 (when records begin) to 42 in 1934. The numbers then dropped again, in part because antibiotics reduced deaths from blood poisoning.
In 1937 doctors Doris Gordon and Francis Bennett wrote Gentlemen of the jury, arguing the case against abortion. They said that women’s greater freedom was allowing them to ignore motherhood, which was their ‘essential duty’. Use of birth control and a ‘rising tide’ of abortions would ‘extinguish [New Zealand’s] white people’.2
After the First World War abortion became a public issue, debated by politicians, doctors and women’s groups, and in newspaper columns. Nationally known doctors, including Frederic Truby King of the Plunket Society and Doris Gordon of the Obstetrical Society, argued that abortion (along with birth control) was to blame for a falling birth rate and the possibility of ‘racial decline’ (the loss of European population dominance).
In 1936 the government set up a committee to consider the high rate of death caused by back-street abortions. The committee’s report focused on the falling birth rate, and was strongly against abortion. However, panic about the birth rate and abortion was overtaken by war and then by a baby boom.
Both married and single women sought abortions. Historians have suggested that in the 1920s and 1930s, married women would try to self-abort, while single women were more likely to go to an abortionist.
Those providing abortions were sometimes skilled: a maternity nurse, a doctor or a chemist. But many had no medical training – money could be made from desperate women, who, regarded as accomplices to a crime, would not go to the police.
Back-street operators were often spoken of as dirty, incompetent and unsafe. Despite this, many illegal abortions were successful. A great deal of money could be made, and word of mouth would not have favoured those whose patients remained pregnant, or ended up in hospital or dead.
The cost of abortion depended on who was involved, the methods used, and how much a woman could pay. The range was wide. In the mid-1930s, Annie Aves carried out 183 abortions and earned £2,232 in 18 months, averaging £12 for each abortion (around $1,400 in 2018 terms). In the early 1940s an abortion carried out by a doctor could cost as much as £100 (around $8,600 in 2018 terms).
Many women desperate to end a pregnancy would first try to do so at home. Attempts to induce miscarriage included vigorous and excessive exercise, jumping off tables, falling down stairs, taking hot baths while drinking half a bottle of gin, and taking laxatives.
In an attempt to physically dislodge the foetus, some women would insert knitting needles, crochet hooks, sharpened pencils or blunted meat skewers into their womb. Another method was injecting fluids (iodine, glycerine or disinfectant) into the uterus using catheters and syringes. Other methods were also used by abortionists, including metallic poisons, quinine, ergot or one of the pills marketed as ‘regulators‘.
The methods were often ineffective and many of them were dangerous. Large amounts of metallic poisons or quinine could kill the woman, and ergot could cause gangrene and mental disturbance. Objects inserted into the uterus could tear it and other internal organs. Pumping air into the womb could cause blocked blood vessels.
The methods used by doctors varied, but the most common from the 19th century was dilation and curettage. This involved opening the cervix (neck of the womb) and scraping out the contents. Doctors were also known to use saline infusions (which provoked a painful labour) and Caesarean sections.
In the decades following the Second World War, when the Pākehā birth rate was high, beliefs about sex, birth control and mothering were shifting, including amongst doctors. It became slightly easier to get an abortion.
The number of abortions performed in public hospitals jumped from less than 70 in 1965 to more than 300 in 1970. When court decisions in 1969 and 1970 made it easier to get abortions in Australia, some New Zealand women travelled across the Tasman for the operation.
Fearing that similar decisions would be made by a New Zealand court, and aware of the increase in hospital abortions, those opposed to abortion began to organise. So did those in favour.
The Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child (SPUC) led the opposition to abortion in the 1970s. Set up in 1970, SPUC was well-funded and had a large and active membership. The Catholic Church was SPUC’s most important source of members and money. In the 1970s SPUC also attracted a number of high-profile members, including Ruth Kirk, wife of Prime Minister Norman Kirk. It claimed that more than 30 members of Parliament were members.
Members of SPUC and their sympathisers regularly picketed abortion clinics (the first of which opened in Auckland in 1974), praying, singing and telling women going in not to kill their babies. Occasionally protesters would follow a woman home and tell her family that she had had an abortion.
Feeling about abortion ran so high that women with opposing views were sometimes unable to work together. There was a walk-out from the 1973 Women’s Convention when a resolution supporting abortion on demand was passed. Those opposed to abortion left the National Organisation for Women.
Opposition by some feminists to abortion caused furious debate within the women’s liberation movement. Anti-abortion feminists formed a group, Feminists for Life, which argued that women who became pregnant should be supported with maternity leave and childcare.
The Abortion Law Reform Association of New Zealand (ALRANZ) was started in 1971. It had male and female members, and argued that abortion was a decision for a woman and her doctor. The more radical Women’s National Abortion Action Campaign (WONAAC) split from ALRANZ in 1973. A women-only group, it argued that abortion was a woman’s right and her decision alone.
There were also many short-lived groups, like the Auckland Anti-Hospitals Amendment Bill Committee, which supported the Auckland Medical Aid Centre, an abortion clinic, and the Backstreet Theatre group, which toured New Zealand in 1976.
REPEAL was formed after Parliament pushed the Contraception, Sterilisation, and Abortion Act through in 1977. The act significantly restricted access to abortion. Opinion polls and submissions prior to the act being passed suggested it was out of step with public feeling on the issue. In three months REPEAL collected 319,000 signatures on a petition seeking repeal of the act. Parliamentary reluctance to reconsider what was a bitterly divisive issue meant the petition was not formally presented to the house.
By the late 1970s some people just wanted an end to the controversy. At a 1978 National Party conference one of those attending pleaded: ‘We’ve all had a guts-full of the issue. Let’s get it under the carpet.’1
Some members of Parliament supported women’s right to abortion, notably Mary Batchelor, George Gair, Whetū Tirikātene-Sullivan and Marilyn Waring. The Catholic Church was consistent in its strong opposition to abortion, but the stance of other churches shifted over time. In the 1970s the Anglican, Baptist, Methodist and Presbyterian churches all took a relatively liberal psition on abortion. This liberalisation was the source of ongoing dissension within the churches.
In 1974 access to abortion became easier when New Zealand’s first abortion clinic opened. There was fierce support for women’s right to abortion and equally intense opposition. People took sides, using arson, harassment and abuse, court cases, police raids, street marches and pickets, acts of Parliament and vigils.
The number of known abortions climbed rapidly through the 1970s and 1980s. In 1971 the rate per woman was 0.02. By 1986 it was 0.30.
The Auckland Medical Aid Centre (AMAC) opened in 1974, providing abortions in the first trimester (1–14 weeks) of pregnancy. After referral by their own doctor, women were assessed by a doctor at the centre, provided with counselling and, if approved, had the operation. Once a woman reached AMAC, the process took two days; later it would take only one. It was a private clinic, and women had to pay $80 in 1974 (around $830 in 2018 terms).
In its first year AMAC provided 2,288 women with abortions; the following year this rose to 4,005. In part, this very rapid rise was a result of a clamp-down in Australia on New Zealand women’s access to Australian government-subsidised abortions.
AMAC introduced the use of vacuum aspiration (sucking out the womb’s contents). The very low rate of infection and damage to the uterus made this method a particularly safe procedure.
Repeated attempts were made by those opposed to abortion to close AMAC. Police raided the centre, Parliament passed restrictive legislation and an arson attempt caused $100,000 worth of damage.
The courts were used in attempts to restrict abortion. In the two most notable cases this backfired, and access to abortion was eased.
After police raided AMAC in 1974, Jim Woolnough, one of the centre’s doctors, was prosecuted. When the Court of Appeal upheld his acquittal, it was on the basis of his sincere belief that the abortions he performed were necessary.
In 1982 Dr Melvyn Wall went to court to prevent a 15-year-old from having an abortion. He lost the case, and a subsequent Appeal Court judgment found that Wall did not have the right to represent the foetus. AMAC was still open in 2018.
Parliament considered several abortion bills in the 10 years from 1974 to 1983. Two were passed.
The Hospitals Amendment Act 1975 was a direct response to AMAC. It limited provision of abortion to licensed hospitals. The act forced AMAC to close, but it re-opened after buying a private hospital. The act was later ruled invalid for technical reasons.
Labour MP Mary Batchelor was the only member of Parliament to oppose the Hospitals Amendment Act 1974. ‘There are 83 men and four women voting on this bill’, she said, ‘and the men will never have to carry anything heavier in their bellies than a good meal.’1
By 1975 abortion had become such a political hot potato that Parliament set up a royal commission to consider it, along with contraception and sterilisation. The Contraception, Sterilisation, and Abortion Act 1977, based on the commission’s recommendations, made getting an abortion more difficult. The act proved difficult to implement and was amended in 1978.
Women had to see their doctor, then two medical consultants, who had to agree that her physical or mental health made an abortion necessary. It was also necessary to find a surgeon to perform the operation.
Counselling had to be available for the woman, and some clinics required women to see a clinic-employed counsellor. The Abortion Supervisory Committee was formed to appoint certifying consultants and licence abortion clinics.
The Contraception, Sterilisation, and Abortion Act 1977 forced AMAC to close for several months. Within days, women set up the Sisters Overseas Service, which helped women travel to Australia for abortions during 1978 and 1979.
Abortion was also a hot issue across the Tasman, and links between Australian and New Zealand activists were close. A 1974 warning to New Zealanders about a Sydney doctor was typical: ‘[H]e is a very bad operator – made a terrible mess of a young girl who had to spend the week in hospital, he would not help her when she went back to see him after the op’.2
The Contraception, Sterilisation, and Abortion Act 1977 also required health boards to fund lawful abortions. In 1978 and 1980 hospital boards in Auckland and Wellington set up their own abortion clinics. AMAC reopened in 1980. Lyndhurst Hospital in Christchurch, a public abortion clinic, was opened in 1986.
From the mid-1970s information about the kinds of women who had abortions became available. The number of unmarried women seeking abortions increased. However, as de facto relationships were increasingly common, these women may not have been single.
In this period women aged 24 and younger were most likely to have an abortion. The rate then steadily tailed off. Pākehā women typically had an abortion at a young age. Māori and, to a greater extent, Pasifika women had poorer access to family planning and contraception, and so were more likely to use abortion throughout their fertile years.
In the 1990s the controversy of the 1970s and 1980s waned. Although the law was restrictive, in practice abortion was generally available. Abortion-rights activism wound down. Anti-abortion groups continued to protest, but to little effect.
However, in the 2000s anti-abortion activism increased. New groups were formed, the Abortion Supervisory Committee was challenged in court, and the internet became a base for activity. In the 2010s a wave of pro-abortion activism focused on persuading the government to decriminalise abortion.
The rate of abortion climbed through the 1990s and stabilised at around 0.6 per woman from 2002. In international terms, this was a moderate rate – lower than England, but higher than Germany.
Access varied from one area of New Zealand to another, and changed over time. In 2018 women up to 19 weeks pregnant were able to have abortions in Wellington and Auckland. A limited service for women over 14 weeks pregnant was provided in Dunedin and Christchurch. In Whanganui, the West Coast and South Canterbury only counselling and referral were available. In other regions abortions were available only in the first trimester.
Picketing outside abortion clinics continued. It was one reason Wellington’s Parkview Abortion Clinic moved into the main hospital in 2000. Women were warned that there might be protesters outside, but were assured that there was no way the protesters could know who was coming to the unit.
Availability of abortion increased with the 2002 introduction of the ‘abortion pill’, mifepristone (RU486). The two doses required had to be taken at an abortion clinic. Abortions obtained through the use of the abortion pill are known as 'medical abortions'. In 2018 medical abortions were not available in Whanganui, Northland or South Canterbury. The Tauranga Family Planning clinic provided medical abortions.
Groups formed in the 1970s continued to be active in the 21st century. In 2004 the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child (SPUC) changed its name to Voice for Life.
Other groups opposed to abortion were Family Life International (founded in 1992), Right to Life New Zealand (1999), Liberty for the Unborn and Pro-life New Zealand (formed in the early 2000s). Anti-abortion groups were often well-funded. Some groups had strong international connections and were concerned with a range of matters including euthanasia and in-vitro fertilisation.
From 2008 Right to Life New Zealand challenged the Abortion Supervisory Committee’s management of abortion in New Zealand in the courts. In 2011 the Court of Appeal ruled that the Abortion Supervisory Committee could not review certifying consultants' decisions (as Right to Life had argued it should), and that there was no foetal right to life.
In the 2010s the focus of pro-abortion activism shifted to decriminalisation. Under the Crimes Act 1961, the provision of an abortion remained a crime unless it was approved by two medical consultants (the procedure introduced by the Contraception, Sterilisation, and Abortion Act 1977). Pro-abortion groups (notably ALRANZ) argued that abortion was a health rather than a criminal issue, and should be decided by the pregnant woman. In 2018 ALRANZ and a group of women who had had abortions took a case to the Human Rights Commission challenging the existing system.
The New Zealand push was part of an international move towards decriminalisation. After more than three decades of avoiding the issue, the New Zealand government introduced an Abortion Legislation Bill in Parliament in 2019. Enacted in 2020, this removed abortion from the Crimes Act and made it a procedure to which a woman was entitled in the first 20 weeks of pregnancy. After that, she had to satisfy a health practitioner that an abortion was ‘clinically appropriate’ with regard to her mental and physical well-being. A second practitioner then had to agree with the first before the procedure was carried out.
The most common method of abortion in the first trimester was dilation and suction curettage. Mifepristone and prostaglandin were used in approximately three-quarters of medical abortions carried out in the first nine weeks of pregnancy. In 2016, 94% of abortions were carried out before the end of the 13th week of pregnancy.
Mein Smith, Philippa. Maternity in dispute: New Zealand 1920–1939. Wellington: Historical Publications Branch, Department of Internal Affairs, 1986.
McCulloch, Alison. Fighting to choose: the abortion rights struggle in New Zealand. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2013.
Sparrow, Margaret. Abortion then and now: New Zealand abortion stories from 1940 to 1980. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2010.
Sparrow, Margaret. Rough on women: abortion in 19th-century New Zealand. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2014.